Tanaka’s Elbow and the Rise of Tommy John Surgeries
There was a lot of buzz around the news that Yankee’s pitcher Masahiro Tanaka had elbow damage and is going to miss at least six weeks. Each of the three doctors Tanaka saw felt that surgery wasn’t needed to repair the partial tear in Tanaka’s ulnar collateral ligament, a procedure known by many as Tommy John Surgery. The news of the injury did more than just strike a huge blow against the Yankees playoff chances. I noticed on Sportscenter there was a lot of talk about the rise of Tommy John surgeries and elbow injuries in the MLB and the cause of it.
Which got me thinking, Tanaka’s injury could prove to be a good example of looking at the injury and how we might be able to prevent future problems.
It is well known throughout the sporting world that pitching is one of the most unnatural motions for the human body. It puts tremendous strain on the human body, especially on the elbow. The easiest pitch on the elbow is the fastball and the change-up, but they put the more strain on the shoulder. The most strenuous on the elbow is the curveball, but most off-speed pitches with movement can take a toll over time. This is one of the reasons why power pitchers usually adapt and become more finesse pitchers when they get older. According to ESPN, the rate of which Masahiro Tanaka throws his splitter has doubled from when he was in Japan and his slider is also being thrown more.
The increase of Tanaka’s splitter is just one of the factors that could explain the deterioration of his elbow. The MLB pitching schedule is very different to that of the Japanese season. In Japan, pitchers typically get six to seven days off in between starts while in America they typically get four and occasionally five days off. So not only is Tanaka’s elbow getting more wear from his pitch selection, it’s also getting less time to recover. This increase of activity is definitely a factor when you look at the mileage that is already on his arm.
It’s always sad to hear that someone goes down with a serious injury, but people are quick to forget that this was one of the possible red flags about him before he signed his deal. Despite him being 25, he’s thrown 1315 innings and 53 complete games in Japan. To give a comparison, if you combine his 6 ½ years in Japanese and American leagues, he’s thrown more innings than either Adam Wainwright (9), R.A. Dickey (12) and Clayton Kershaw (7) in less years and would be the active leader in complete games beating current leader CC Sabathia by 16 games.
Tanaka’s elbow problems shouldn’t come across as the surprise. What should is the number of young stars who are having these problems.
In the past few years, the leagues have lost some promising young pitchers including Jose Fernandez, Stephen Strasburg and Matt Harvey to name a few. These three pitchers are all considered power pitchers who rarely use their off-speed pitches with much regularity and have pitched only a fraction of the innings Tanaka has. Strasburg and Harvey mainly switch between two and four seam fastballs, their changeup and mixing in a slider, or as Strasburg calls it a slurve.
Even though pitchers often come back a little better than they were before they went under the knife, surgery is never a safe and sure thing and the long recovery time is something to take seriously.So how do we protect the arms of baseball’s future aces?
In a day that managers have become obsessed with pitch count, especially for young pitchers, they have the right intentions but the wrong solution. The easiest is that there should be extra rest for these pitchers. Whether that means more off days resulting in a shorter season or the addition of a sixth man to the rotation, it’s hard to say. For whatever reason though, pitcher’s arms aren’t holding up the same well as they used to and a discussion needs to be had by the owners and the league.